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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Bushscience; Coprinopsis atramentaria

As promised the Bushscience series is back on the Bushcraft Education blog and this weeks topic is the mysterious Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria).

They pop up in large clumps and are smooth, grey and dome shaped, generally smaller than their shaggy (Coprinus comatus) cousins they do however share that same trait, as do all the ink caps, of decaying into an inky mess after a day or two. In fact it is from this trait that the species derives it's name atramentaria from the Latin 'atramentum' for 'ink'. Originally classified as belonging to the genus Agaricus, as was the shaggy ink cap, they were later re-classified as belonging to the genus Coprinopsis. Ink cap is as much a description as a name as the unique trait of these species is that to spread their spored their gills secrete a fluid filled with spores (this spore print can be seen in the picture on the right) and eventually the entire fruiting body turns to an inky slime and disintegrates.  For this reason although common and shaggy ink caps are both edible and delicious they must be eaten very fresh as within a few hours of picking this decay will begin. 

Shaggy ink caps showing all stages of growth and decay with young specimens to the front and right, you can notice the start of the decay in the tallest mushroom in the centre and watch the gradual disintegration of the entire cap and collapse of the stem in those on the left. 

Decaying shaggy ink caps. 
There are many ink cap species, over 120 in fact and while the topic of this post will relate specifically to the common ink cap and it's edibility there is an ink cap species, native to the UK although not particularly common, that is poisonous, the magpie ink cap  (Coprinus picacea). 

Magpie ink cap, you don't see them very often and they do look superficially like the shaggy ink cap but you will notice that while shaggy ink caps start of a uniform creamy white before they start to turn but this magpie ink cap is definitely black and white from the beginning, like a magpie. 
On to the main event though; the common ink cap and it's fickle edibility, sometimes it's edible, sometimes it isn't but why? To explain why it is sometimes inedible we need to refer to one of it's colloquial names; tipplers bane. This name refers to the fact that this particular mushroom is poisonous when combined with alcohol. 

What it actually creates is an extreme sensitivity to alcohol with similar consequences to drugs specifically used to combat alcohol addiction such as disulfiram which inhibits the function of the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase. The compound present in common ink caps which causes this is something called coprine.


Coprine doesn't stop the production of  acetaldehyde dehydrogenase but rather blocks it's action and it's this enzyme that is responsible for many of the effects of a hangover. What you get if you have eaten common ink caps and consume enough alcohol to raise your blood alcohol concentration to about 5mg/dL you will feel the effects of this poisoning in the form of a reddening face, nausea, vomiting, tingling in the limbs and eventually in extreme cases, the effects of the poison grow worse the more alcohol you consume, cardiac arrhythmia.   

So there you have it, that's what make the common ink cap a 'tipplers bane'. 

As you will have read plenty of scientific names for fungi in this post I've decided to do another Bushscience post next week on the topic of 'binomial nomenclature' or scientific names to explain how they work, where they come from and what they are for, look forward to it next Tuesday. 


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Applied Bushcraft; The Gamekeeper

Dogs help a Scottish gamekeeper keep watch in Aberfoyle, Scotland
A traditional image of a keeper surveying his 'beat' with his dogs.
By Photographes du National Geographic ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While 'bushcraft' is a modern word the skills that have been adopted by modern recreational bushcrafters have been practised for centuries. Some bushcrafters are in my opinion preoccupied with a the idea of the ancient or primitive aspects and often forget that the skills and equipment we use as bushcrafters now represent the pinnacle of their respective technologies. Knives with fancy steels, ferocium rods and light weight tarps are not ancient or primitive and while bushcraft might be a refuge for some primitive and traditional skills it's not quite as primitive as some would like to think it is nor does it have a monopoly on traditional skills, with the revival of the Bushcraft Education blog the 'Applied Bushcraft' series is back to look at those professions which still use skills associated with bushcraft on a daily basis. Today we will be looking at Gamekeepers and the 'bushcraft' skills that they use every day.  

My oldest didn't realise just how heavy a goose
was. We clearly don't buy our Christmas goose
as you can see, this one is going to be the outer
layer of a multi bird roast which will also include
duck, pheasant, coot, partridge and pigeon
Game keeping is a very old profession but it hasn't always been called game keeping, back in the day when the only around 5000 people lived in the British Isles and survived in hunter gatherer societies hunting was a daily part of life carried out as a vital part of survival. It is likely that successful hunters were celebrated and honoured and it is also likely that hunts were considered enjoyable and exhilarating but they would not have been a recreational activity just as going to the super market today is not considered recreational (in fact it's closer to a cruel and unusual punishment, I'd rather hunt my food). As time went by and agriculture became the mainstay of subsistence hunting still played a part to supplement the regular diet provided by agriculture but as agriculture became more and more efficient so hunting became less and less necessary for survival and became a recreation. While hunting and gathering is often a 24/7 job farming doesn't have to be which allowed societies to develop. Hunting for food never died out but the recreational element of it gradually became the most important part. In the British Isles we do not even have any cultural traditions that relate to the eating of game at certain times of year, compare the Icelandic tradition of  eating ptarmigan at Christmas (although hunting ptarmigan is now banned in Iceland due to declining populations), or the Rajput tradition of game curries. But in the UK now the closest we come to a game eating tradition is the vague idea that goose is an alternative to turkey at Christmas and those who do choose goose will invariably buy one. 

As hunting became a recreational pastime providing that recreation became a profession for others.  As far back as 3,500 BC the ancient Egyptians enjoyed hunting as a pastime and professional hunters would have tended the hunting equipment, horses, dogs and chariots that would have been used in the pursuit of leopards, lions, barbary sheep, antelope and other game pursued for the table or purely for sport. Much later in medieval Britain the foresters would have served the crown and maintained the royal hunting estates know as forests and chases. The word game keeper was not yet in common usage but the foresters did similar work, largely they were responsible for the protection of game from those not allowed to hunt, the collection of fines and the preservation of game. It is strange that while game would once have been pursued by all as an integral part of their daily lives and ultimately their survival that as people became more 'civilised' that right was reserved for at least the rich or royal and in the case of some parts of the medieval period solely the King. During the medieval period particularly under the rule of the Plantagenet kings the 'beasts of the chase' (deer, boar etc..) were reserved for the King or those with his specific licence and permission, nobles hunting without permission would be fined and peasants often brutally punished and sometimes executed depending on the perceived severity of their crime. For example the taking of a roe deer carried the punishment of blinding until they were reclassified as a 'beast of the warren' in 1338 and became fair game to all who wanted to hunt them (this ultimately led to their extinction in most of England and Wales until concerted efforts were made to re-introduce them in the 1800's). Medieval sport always revolved around the deer and boar and although pheasants, partridges and grouse were found in the British Isles they were not valued as a sporting quarry until much more recently and it is with game bird hunting that we associate the 'game keeper'. With a decline in the vast space required for hunting in the medieval fashion and the invention of effective breach loading firearms driven shooting started becoming popular in the 1800's and now forms the mainstay of organised shooting and 'hunting' in the UK.  The word hunting needs some discussion at this point, in the UK the word hunting would normally be used to reference the hunting of an animal with dogs and possibly also horses whereas all other forms of hunting are normally described as 'shooting' often with the appropriate quarry name attached or 'stalking' (see a post from a few years ago for more info). 

With the growth of game bird shooting the game keeper became an integral part of the rural landscape and even today uses a whole raft of skills which we associate with bushcraft as part of their daily routine. 

Weather it's determining the cause of death of a pheasant from it's remains, working out where a fox earth is, tracking a wounded deer or tracking poachers a game keeper is constantly interpreting the sign he sees in the countryside. Being able to tell the difference between a nest of hatched eggs and one which has been raided by a crow or badger is vital as is being able to tell the difference between a fox print and a jack russell print or mink and otter prints or between the trail left by a badger and a fox. All these skills relate  directly to the work of a gamekeeper. Perhaps we need to make sure we are setting a legal snare on a fox run rather than a badger run or identifying the right spot to set a snare on a rabbit run based on it's foot falls. Maybe we need to determine whether there are otters in an area so we can decide whether it is safe to set lethal traps for mink or live catch traps in case we accidentally catch an otter. Keepers and pest controllers use a specific piece of equipment to catch the signs of these animals; 

Image result for mink raft
These 'Mink rafts' catch the footprints of animals that use them which can then be used to determine the appropriate course of action, if mink are present and there is no risk of catching non target species such as otters or water voles lethal traps can be used, replacing the clay/sand mix with something like a mark 6 fen trap or if other species are present a live catch trap could be used instead to ensure that non target species are not harmed and can be humanely released in case of accidental capture.
A mink raft set and ready for action. 


I'll refer you to our bushcraft and the law series for this particular topic because although trapping may interest the bushcraft fraternity there is rarely justification for the use of traps in recreational buschraft and it is particularly important to remember that the primitive traps that we as bushcrafters are most interested in are actually illegal. Gamekeepers however do often use traps as part of their regular routine and have to abide by certain laws and guidelines regarding the types of traps that they use and how often they are checked and what species you can use them on. There is already a lot on this blog about trapping and you can view the relevant posts HERE. Mostly game keepers will be trapping pest and predators which if uncontrolled would devastate wildlife populations things such as corvids (Crows, magpies etc..) using larsen and ladder traps. 

Foxes will primarily be controlled by shooting but snares and live capture traps also play a significant part in their control. Historically gin traps would also have been used but these have been illegal in the UK since 1957. 

A gin trap; these were designed to hold the captured animal by the foot or leg and often led to severe injury and escape, animals were even recorded to have bitten off their own legs to escape. They have been illegal since the late 50's in the UK. 
Spring traps come in various shapes and sizes and licence for use against specific quarry depending on their size, power and design. This specification can not be deviated from and if a trap of the wrong design is used on quarry that it is not licensed for the law has been broken. For example a fen mark 6 can be used to trap mink but a mark 4 can't as it is too small and not powerful enough. Much of this trapping legislation is in the process of significant change at the moment and the fen traps and magnum traps that have been the mainstay of a keepers pest control equipment for the best part of half a century are about to be outlawed and replaced with new traps which are even more human and which satisfy the condition of the International Humane Trapping Standards. For more information check out some previous posts on trapping HERE and HERE.

Providing Food;

Ultimately the work of a game keeper culminates with the shooting season when pheasants, partridges and grouse are shot. While many participate in this shooting as sport ultimately what is produced is food and a lot of bushcraft revolves around the finding, production and cooking of food. A keeper needs to be able to bring down game, or more often vermin,  it's the paying guests that should be shooting the game, which can enter the human food chain. The pheasants and partridges shot on the shoot are a sought after luxury product, although sadly many retailers no longer accept wild game that has been shot preferring to import for example venison from farms in New Zealand. Much of what the keeper shoots can be eaten too; pigeons, rabbits, jackdaws and squirrels are all delicious and even the less sought after game species which are rarely shot on shoots but when they are generally just get fed to dogs and ferrets like coots and moorhens for example all make a good meal. There are other vermin I would not recommend eating; fox for example in my experience tastes like bitter spam. Whether the animals and birds are shot as game by paying guests or by the keeper as vermin they are food though and the getting of food is an important part of bushcraft as well as one of the outcomes of the keepers work. 

Fur and Feather;

Bushcrafters often pride themselves in not wasting anything and keepers are much the same, I have often paid a significant percentage of my annual shotgun ammunition bill by selling squirrel tails, pheasant tails, jay wings and other resources harvested from game or vermin to people who use them to make fishing flys. Game yields far more than just meat and while the average keeper or deer stalker may not make hide glue or use animal bones to make needles and other tools as would have been done prehistorically they do make a lot of use can be made of the skins and other products of a shot animal. Rabbit skins become dummy's for dog training, non trophy deer antlers become dog chews, whistles, key rings and walking stick handles, hare's are carefully skinned so the short hair from their faces can be used for fishing flies, deer hooves become traditional walking stick handles and very little is wasted.  

Environmental Awareness;

As bushcrafters we pride ourselves in being able to identify plants, trees and other wildlife, in understanding what the changing seasons means for the countryside and in recognising the subtle signs of the wildlife that lives there. We know the best places to look for certain plants and wildlife and the best time of year to find them. Keepers have been the guardians of this information for many years and before bushcraft became a popular recreational activity they along with farmers, foresters, thatchers, terrier men and other 'country folk' would have been the ones who had a monopoly on this information, in fact I would hazard a guess that there isn't a single half competent bushcrafter who hasn't learned at least a few things from an old keeper, farmer or 'country person' over the course of their careers. Keepers need to know where to go to find the fox that's been bothering the pheasants, or the best place to set a trap for a stoat or a snare for a rabbit or the best time of year to shoot crows and the right time of year to catch pheasants for breeding and a whole host of other things and this knowledge only comes through regular time spent outdoors in all weathers and seasons and spending that time outdoors is part of a keepers job.  

So that's a little insight into the bushcraft skills used by game keepers, there will be more coming soon as we expand out applied bushcraft series. The other once regular series of the Bushcraft Education blog will all be back soon as well with a Bushscience post all about why common ink caps are poisonous when combined with alcohol but absolutely fine to eat at other times due out next week. 

I hope you are enjoying the new content and we will keep it coming, you can expect at least one post a week. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

The latest Bushcraft Basics page is available

The latest bushcraft basics page is available here and for a limited time below;

Knives, along with some other basic tools have become part of the 'uniform' of the modern bushcraft enthusiast. But knives are not just ornaments that set us apart as bushcrafters they are a vital tool of survival, in fact knives are the oldest metal tools known to man. Preceded by stone and bone tools knives make survival in the wilderness possible and are often the key to preparing dry kindling and tinder, preparing food, fashioning other tools and utensils to make out lives in the wilderness possible and comfortable. 

This page of the introductory 'bushcraft basics' section of our website is dedicated to knives and how to choose your bushcraft knife.    

Before metal cutting tools we would have relied largely on stone tools, in the British Isles they may have been knapped from flint and chert or larger tools such as axes may have been shaped from shale and porcellanite.  

Copper Axe Head. Early Bronze Age. (FindID 154837).jpg
Five thousand years ago stone tools would have been largely replaced by metal and your average cutting tool might have been made from copper or bronze, like the copper axe carried by the ice man Ötzi. Picture by The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0Link

Nowadays the blades of your knives and cutting tools will certainly be made of steel, but there are so many modern bushcraft knives to choose from how do you pick just one that will be a useful all-round tool.

If we are going to talk about different knives, their pro's and con's and the features and qualities that will inform our decision on which to choose we need to understand a knifes anatomy;

A Saker Bushcraft Knife by Columbia River Knife and Tool

The shape shown in the Saker by CRKT pictured above is fairly representative of your average 'bushcraft' knife. A lot of knives marketed with the word bushcraft tend to follow fairly closely in the footsteps of the ubiquitous 'woodlore' knife designed by Ray Mears. There are other options and schools of thought out there regarding the 'perfect' bushcraft knife and ultimately the choice is yours but a few other particularly popular designs exist and are returned to regularly by modern knife makers:

Horace Kephart

He may be a legend but it looks like he needs to work on his trigger discipline.
By Unnamed photographer - Western Carolina University,
Hunter Library Special Collections
, Public Domain, Link
Horace Kephart is one of the fathers of national parks in the United States and Mount Kephart in the Smokey Mountain National Park is named after him. He was trained and employed originally as a librarian but wrote often about hunting and camping. Many of his writings were compiled into a single volume and published in 1906 as Camping and Woodcraft. He makes some recommendations in his writing on the specification of his knife. Luckily for us he also designed  this knife for production by the Colclesser Bothers and the knife was produced and sold. Only two are known to still be in existence, one in a museum and one in a private collection but we have pictures of them to refer to and many modern knives copy his pattern almost exactly; such as the blackbird by Ontario Knife Company. 


Nessmuk (George Washington Sears).jpg
By George Washington Sears -,
Public Domain, 

This is the picture that appears in woodcraft depicting Nessmuks 
George Washington Sears, known by his pen-name of 'nessmuk' was an American writer and outdoorsman who published a book on 'woodcraft' in 1884 which has become a seminal text on camping, bushcraft and the outdoors. In it he describes his ideal cutting tools including the knife he recommends. Many have since copied it and applied it's shape to knives now sold as bushcraft knives, perhaps without truly understanding how Nessmuk himself used this knife. The tools he recommends to the light weight camper, Nessmuk was an advocate of travelling light and making use of  basic tools and superior skill to make your trips rather than relying on porters and heavy gear, a point he returns to regularly in his writing; the tools included a small double bit hatchet, a sheath knife and a pocket knife. if we carefully read what he had to say we will soon realise that 99% of the jobs we do with our bushcraft knives today Nessmuk performed with his pocket knife. His sheath knife was strictly reserved for skinning and preparing game and was kept razor sharp for that purpose and that purpose alone. As a skinning knife it has a shape we would recognise but is very different from your average modern day bushcraft knife.  

Image result for nessmuk knifeThe picture to the left from woodcraft shows nessmuks tools of choice and if you search for 'nessmuk knife' now you will find a range of beautiful modern interpretations of his knife but many of them will not faithfully represent his knife except in basic outline. The hunch backed blade is reminiscent of butchers carving knives or skinning knives but most of the modern copies have the thick spine and grind of a 'survival' knife meaning it is not the specialist tool Nessmuk had in mind but rather an all round bushcraft knife forced into the shape of his old skinning knife. The kinfe that would have been his utility knife for whittling, carving and other chores would have been his pocket knife. Pocket knives don't get good press among bushcrafters as a whole nowadays, the reason being the inherent insecure nature of the blade and handle. A blade that folds might fold when you don't want it to and is inherently weaker than a fixed blade knife and therefore doesn't inspire confidence when doing tasks which might require more strength or force. However a pocket knife tends to be what we have available to us most of the time and if you want to practice bushcraft more than just casually I suggest a strong pocket knife which can be used at all times so that you can take advantage of opportunities for a little foraging, whittling and collecting even when you can't justify carrying a sheath knife. 

A modern take on nessmuks outdoor tools, the Camilus Bushcrafter, it may share it's outline with nessmuks original design but you can clearly see the Scandinavian grind (we will address grind in a minute) and thick blade steel. The two or three bladed pocket knife would have been his main utility blade(s) here represented by a Case Stockman. 

When selecting a knife we are presented with a  bewildering array of options and selecting a knife that is a good all-round tool can be the biggest challenge of all. It’s fairly easy to set criteria for what a knife for a specific task needs to be, for example a knife for skinning and gutting must have a stainless steel blade, a non-absorbent handle, rubberised or textured handle to avoid slips when the knife is wet and a hard non-absorbent sheath for safety and hygiene. When it comes to picking an all-rounder though there are a few more things to consider so think about the following three major characteristics of your knife.  


Carbon steels are often promoted as the material for bushcraft knife blades because of the notion that they strike better sparks from a firesteel and the fact that some carbon steels are easier to sharpen in 
the field than some stainless steels. In truth though you can strike a spark from a fire steel with a shard of broken glass, so the notion that carbon is better than stainless for creating sparks is nonsense and regarding sharpening: This is bushcraft not surviving the zombie apocalypse, you have deliberately put yourself in a situation where you are relying on your outdoor skills and basic equipment so if you have a knife there is no reason to not have a proper sharpening stone. Some popular preferences for knife steels come from national pride or brand loyalty as well, in particular bushcraft and survival style knives from the  United States tend to be made from carbon steels such as 1095 Carbon steel whereas bushcraft knives from Sweden tend to be produced from sandvik steel and knives produced in Italy and Germany see to often use Böhler stainless steels such as N690 from Austria. Ultimately great knives can be made from any quality steel and there should be no need to invest in a knife with a particularly 'super' steel to get great results from your tool. 
The advantages that stainless steel gives is some additional protection from rust and corrosion, although the word stainless steel is a bit of an exaggeration, it’s not really ‘stainless’, it does stain less but it’s not stain free and you will still need to care for your stainless steel knife by cleaning it properly and oiling it occasionally. What makes the stainless steels ‘stainless’ is the fact that it contains chromium, normally at least ten percent although it will vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Ultimately if the steel is high quality whether it’s carbon steel or stainless it will be fine. 

Blade Shape;

Blade tips from a (clockwise from bottom left) Böker Rockey Ridge Hunter (drop point), Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft (clip point), Exagon Tactical Knives FX-1666 TK by Fox Knives (simple/normal point), Cold Steel Tanto lite (tanto), EKA Nordic W12 (drop point).
Blades can take many shapes and forms and some are more suited to bushcraft tasks than others, One key feature that must be present in a knife that would be suitable for bushcraft is a sharp point, that sounds obvious but there are actually quite a few knives that don’t have this feature. A sharp point is important as it can be used for prying, scoring and drilling, and not the sort of nonsense you see on youtube with people insisting that knives have a 3/16 inch thick blade so that they can use them as prybars or stab them into trees to use as a step, quite what they are trying to reach I don’t know. By prying I mean lifting small slivers of wood, perhaps to produce a hole like this; 

Some blade designs which might not have this feature include the tanto blade or ones with the type of blade often referred to as a 'nessmuk' by Bushcrafters. Drop point or spear point designs are most common among ‘bushcraft knives', although knives with a slight clip point are equally effective, like the one on the Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft knife pictured below;



From top to bottom; Cold Steel Outdoorsman lite (Sabre grind), Fällkniven F1 3G (Convex grind), Hand made Bushcraft Knife from the UK (Scandinavian grind), Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft (Flat grind).
The ‘grind’ of a knife is the shape of the knifes edge, not the shape of the blade but the way the blade tapers to the sharp edge. There are four types you will normally encounter in knives suitable for 
bushcraft; Scandinavian grind where the bevel (that is the part of the blade which tapers to the edge) is a single angle from some distance up the blade all the way to the cutting edge. A full flat grind where the blade has no flat portion at all and tapers all the way from the spine to the edge with a fine second angle (or bevel) just before the edge for strength, a sabre grind which features a slightly higher grind than a scandinavian grind but with the addition of a secondary bevel like on a flat ground knife. Finally the convex grind which features no angles whatsoever but a gradual symetrical curve from spine to edge. Well executed convex edges like the ones on the Fällkniven range are fantastic and hard to beat in terms of performance for bushcraft and survival tasks but it is unfortunately very easy to find manufacturers who produce very poor convex edges which are terrible to use, for example Condor, every condor knife I have used has had a hideous convex edge, although they are never advertised as convex, but the portion of the blade nearest the edge is very steeply covexed and just seems to have no bite and rides strait out of whatever you are cutting. There are other grind optionts such as hollow grind and chisel grind but these are less common and have significant drawbacks; hollow grinds tend to be very fragile and prone to chipping, and chisel grinds are, in my opinion, for chisels and side axes. 

Scandinavian grinds are often favoured for bushcraft knives for their superior wood working performance, not to mention the fact that it has been popularized by well known celebrity bushcrafters like Ray Mears and are featured on all the Mora range of knives which set the standard for basic bushcraft knives. Ultimately any of the grinds shown above will perform adequately for bushcraft tasks though.  


Clockwise from top right; Handmade UK Bushcraft knife (full tang bone handle), Viper Tank (full tang canvas micarta handle),  Fällkniven F1 3G (protruding broad tang, plastic (thermorun) handle), Eickhorn Nordic Bushcraft (full tang aluminium handle), EKA Nordic W12 (full tang, G10 handle). 

Handles are the simplest of these three things to address, above all other considerations they should be comfortable. A few other suggestions are that the handle is non-porous so it is less likely to swell in damp conditions and is more hygienic when used to process game. For comfort a handle which fully encloses the tang (the tang of the knife is the metal of the blade which extends into the handle) can be recommended although a full tang, that is one which extends the full length and width of the handle will be stronger but as with the question of which steel to choose in your knife a good quality knife will do a fine job whether it has a full tang or not. The most important aspect of the handle is that it fits your hand, a bushcraft knife might be needed for prolonged use so a handle that comfortable fits a full hand grip is essential. No knives that only offer a three finger grip should be considered for bushcrafting. Even the fantastic Böker Rockey Ridge Hunter which I have pictured further up the page despite being an excellent skinning knife would perform poorly in tasks requiring greater strengths as the handle is too small to use comfortably for heavy duty work or for a long time. 

With all these things in mind I will give one further piece of advice about knife selection, I have been very careful not to say that a certain knife is the ONE knife to have, although I might have warned you off from a few others. If you are to spend your money on bushcraft remember that adequate kit can be found for very little, invest your money in knowledge first and kit second you can get a Hultafors heavy duty knife for less than £5 or a Mora companion for £15. If you are going to buy a three or four or five hundred pound bushcraft knife consider the number of books you could buy to learn more bushcraft skills or the fact that you could get a return flight to New Zealand for only £200 more or three return flights for you and your rucksack full of cheap bushcraft tools to Sweden where you could camp for as long as you want and practice your skills. It's up to you. 

Once you have selected your knife, the sky is the limit for what you will go on to make, but remember to be careful with it. 

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Bushcraft Basics; Cordage

I have started building up the 'bushcraft basics' pages here at Bushcraft Education and these can be found from the menu at the top of the page. The plan is to eventually have a whole suite of pages dedicated to basic bushcraft skills and this is the latest one. They can be found as permanent pages HERE  but for now I will post them as regular blog posts too.

I hope you enjoy it.


A vitally important commodity to the bushcrafter is something to bind, knot and secure things with. Mors Kochanski dedicates a chapter of his famous book Northern Bushcraft to the topic of 'bindcraft' and Dave Canterburys well known principle of  '10 C's of survivability' includes cordage. 

Whether that cord comes in the form of the ubiquitous 'paracord', is split down from larger ropes, improvised from seat belt's, straps, belts, shoe laces or duck tape it doesn't matter as long as you have something to pitch a tarp shelter, make bow drill strings or improvise traps.  Cord has a host of used beyond just tying knots, jute twine can be shredded down to it's constituent fibres and used for fire lighting, it can also be used to make a wick for an improvised lamp or candle, lamp wick was traditionally used to make the bindings of old fashioned home made snow shoes. 

As bushcrafters though the interest in cordage largely lies in the skill of being able to make it yourself. Even if you have plenty of synthetic cord it is satisfying to be able to make it yourself from natural materials and how about challenging yourself to use a home made natural string to gt your bow drill fire going?

So how do we make it? First let's look at the materials we have to choose from, how to identify them and prepare them.  

A selection of cordage and material ready to be made into cord, from left to right; horseradish fibres from the stem of horseradish leaves, cord made of elm bark, a bundle of lime bast with the start of a piece of cord. 
There is a whole range of plant fibres that we can use for cordage so we need to start by identifying it; 
Believe it or not as well as providing a delicious ingredient in the form of it's root the chunky ribs of the horseradish leaves provide strong wiry fibres for cord making. Processing them takes a bit of effort and will make your hands stink for days. It's leaves are surprisingly large and can be differentiated from other similar leaves like foxglove and comfrey by it's evenly serrated edges and hairless leaves compared to the soft downy leaves of the alternatives.

The lime tree is one of the best sources of natural cordage available to us in Europe, the bark of the tree can be processed to make some of the strongest natural fibres you can hope for. 
Lime leaves have this distinctive serrated heart shape. 

Another good source of fibres for your cord making is the bark of the elm tree (the leaf pictured above is from a wych elm). We featured a post on some of the potential problems with harvesting and using elm bark in our bushcraft and the law series so rather than repeat that here you can check that post out by following this link. 
The much maligned stinging nettle is not only a great source of wild food but the fibres from the stems are another fantastic source of very strong fibres that can be used for making string. 
As well as being excellent material for making whistles willow is also an excellent source of bark for cordage, but it takes some considerable preparation before it can be used. 

These few examples are not an exhaustive list and cord can be improvised from other less ideal materials as well such as the fibres of bramble stems, honeysuckle bark, grass or cat tail leaves to name just a few. 

Some of these fibres can be used fresh and horseradish are fine to use as soon as they are harvested but almost all will benefit from being dried and re-hydrated before being turned into cord. Nettles in particular benefit from this as if used fresh they will dry and your string will turn into what looks like a DNA helix rather than a nice tight piece of sting. They can be stored dry for a considerable amount of time before being used. Others; lime bark and willow in particular must be processed before they are any use at all. 

Lime and willow bark must be harvested in the summer otherwise it can't be separated from the wood  easily. The easiest way to get plenty of lime bark is to fell a large 'sucker'. Lime will send up shoots or suckers from the base of a mature tree and these can get quite large, if you can fell one that is wrist thick or even larger and as long as you can find you will get a huge amount of fibre for cordage making. Once you have felled it you can strip the bark off using a stick carved to a chisel shape at one end and it should come off in one piece.  

Harvesting and stripping elm bark 

You want to strip bark with your hands and wooden tools as much as possible, maybe a single cut down the length of the piece with your knife or axe to ensure the fibres are as undamaged as possible. 
A good selection of harvested elm and lime bark. The wood is great as well lime makes fantastic hearths and drills for fire lighting and elm is wonderfully strong. 

Although elm bark can be used as is lime bark needs to be allowed to 'rett' or ferment in water, this process rots away some of the plant fibres leaving only the fine flexible fibre that we want to use for our cordage. Ideally this water should be running but a large trough is an acceptable substitute. 

Once retted the inner bark can be stripped from the outer bark and dried ready for future use. If you are careful some of these strips can be as long at the sucker they were cut from and the longer the individual fibres the stronger your cord will be as you will have to do less splicing and joining. 

A big bundle of lime bast, bast is what we call this bark once it is prepared for use. 
The bast can be used as it is for some projects such as the binding for this grass coil basket.   For a finished coil basket check out this post about how to make them on the Geoff Bushcraft Blog.              
If you are going to make cord though you will need to process your fibres a little more, although the retting process is specific to lime bark among those materials discussed here the next few steps are going to be the same for any fibres you choose to use.

Your two main options for turning your fibres into cord is plaiting or reverse wrapping, reverse wrapping is the better option for plant fibres in my opinion although I will always plait rawhide. A plaited rawhide rope makes an excellent option for a bow drill string. It's incredibly strong and resistant to abrasion and is also slightly so unlike all but the very best ropes made from plant fibres it is very forgiving when it comes to the extreme abuse that being used as a bow drill string subject it to. Reverse wrapping takes a little getting used to but produces an excellent cord that will look just like the kind you might buy in the shops and which will not fray when cut. To reverse wrap your fibres into cordage you will need to find the middle of a bundle of fibres, take the bundle between the thumb and finger of each hand and twist in opposite directions until the fibres kink and form a loop. This loop is going to be one end of your cord. From there on you will hold the twisted portion of the fibres to keep them still and then with your other hand you will twist the upper bundle of fibres between your thumb and index finger until is is tightly twisted and then take the lower bundle of fibres behind the first so that it is now uppermost, repeat the process.

The first twist in the fibres.


This video shows the process of making reverse wrap cordage as it is very difficult to explain. 

Finished reverse wrap lime cordage. 

Some uses for natural cordage, fishing line for these gorge hooks

Snares, completed with grass stem runners so they open and close smoothly.

deer sinew binding for fletchings on a stone age arrow experiment. 

Making cord from natural material is very rewarding and almost therapeutic, it takes a long time to make any significant amount of cord but it is very satisfying and calming.  It will also surprise you just how strong this cord is, especially the particularly excellent lime and nettle cords which really are strong enough to use for fishing line, small mammal snares, nets and even ropes for hauling if made large enough.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Hunter, The Dog Men and the House by the shore.

Today we have a guest post from Dr Peter Groom, who has written here before on the topic of experimental archaeology as part of our 'Applied Bushcraft' Series. He has recently published an excellent book based on his experiences of hunter gatherer living skills and has kindly shared his motivations for writing his novel with us on the BushcraftEducation blog.

Peter Groom has a PhD in Mesolithic Archaeology, is a freelance Experimental Archaeologist and Primitive Skills/Bushcraft practitioner, a founder member of the Mesolithic Resource Group and is the Course manager and principal instructor of the Environmental Archaeology and Primitive Skills course at Reaseheath College. He lives in Staffordshire.

Amongst other things I am an experimental archaeologist, using primitive skills and bushcraft to help us understand how our ancestors used to live.  Some of my projects have included; stone bead making in Romania, tree bast experiments in Denmark, and Neanderthal birch bark tar production. In short, a range of exciting and fascinating projects.  A major recent project for me has been to work on the west coast of Scotland trying to figure out how Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were living 8000 years ago.  I did this by restricting myself to the resources and tool kit of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer so that I could I go through similar thought processes and experiences. Using experimental archaeology and primitive skills to fill in some of the gaps in the archaeological record, the human facets that are often missing.

Making and testing a wide range of fishing gear, I travelled thousands of miles over 4 years and started to feel like a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer; lugging fishing gear to remote sites, planning to maximise the use of tides, experiencing lousy weather. These experiences provided me with an insight into the world of the coastal hunter-gatherer, revealing the extent of organisation and knowledge that they must have had in order to fully utilise their environment. The planning needed to maximise returns, whether foraging, hunting or collecting resources. The environmental and ecological knowledge required; the places to find the best materials for a particular task, knowledge of seasons and the seasonal movement of species. When and where to be, at a particular place at a particular time. It is of course very difficult to understand the mind-set of someone who lived 8000 years ago, but by using some of those ancient hunter-gatherer skills together with experimental archaeology, we can move some way toward them. It is apparent that Prehistoric people had an extensive knowledge of raw material processing that many of us currently lack. I have a wide range of interests and experimental archaeology provides a fusion between my environmental knowledge, interests in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology and my fascination in the use of organic materials in Prehistory. Experimental archaeology/primitive skills are often used to engage public interest in our past, most notably through reconstruction or experiential learning.

With a view to further communicating our understanding of the Mesolithic I recently wrote a novel, The Hunter, The Dog Men and the House by the Shore

I wrote the novel with three objectives in mind. Firstly to illustrate what a fascinating and diverse ecosystem we have lost in the UK since the Mesolithic. Secondly, to bring to the modern reader some idea of the lives of our Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the food they ate, how they might have cooked it, how they travelled, the tools, the buildings, etc. Thirdly, to demonstrate the extensive skills and knowledge that our ancestors would have employed day in, day out, skills that most people now lack.
The novel is based on the latest archaeological research and is packed full of Natural History, Bushcraft and Primitive Skills. The story takes the reader on a journey through north-west England (what is now Cheshire and North Staffordshire), 8000 years ago in a landscape where aurochs, elk, wolf, lynx and wild boar roam. The main character is a lone Mesolithic hunter who works his way through this diverse and changing landscape. On his travels he encounters a range of characters; from traders to killers and ultimately meets his new mate who lives in a house by the shore.

The novel is available to purchase in a link on the left of the page. 

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